One thing that always fascinates me about Judaism is the relevance of ancient holidays in modern life. When learning about Jewish history, there’s usually insight that can be applied to today.
For instance, we are now in the midst of the three weeks – a period of mourning that commemorates the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples. Tisha B’Av – the ninth day of the month of Av, which begins this year on the evening of Wednesday, July 29 – is the date both Temples were destroyed.
I don’t claim to be a historian by any means, but here’s a little background on the two Temples: The First Temple, built in the 10th century BCE by King Solomon, was destroyed in 586 BCE by the army of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king. The Second Temple was built under the direction of Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea. This Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70E. (For those who don’t know, today’s Kotel in Jerusalem is believed to be a retaining wall from Herod’s Temple, which is why it’s considered to be a holy place.)
In modern times, Jews continue to mourn the destruction of both Temples, as well as numerous other catastrophes that have happened on Tisha b’Av since (the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1490, the beginning of World War 1 in 1914 and the beginning of Warsaw deportations to the Treblinka death camp in 1942.)
How is all this relevant to today?
When the Temple was destroyed, it dramatically altered the way the Jewish people lived. At that time, the Temple was where they gathered and worshiped. The destruction of the Temple left their lives in shambles and they suffered from a famine and a civil war. The life that generation led would no longer be the same ever again.
A novel I read a few years ago, “The Dovekeepers” by Alice Hoffman, put a personal touch on the tragedy, as the novel of biblical history told a story through a family who escaped from Jerusalem and attempted to survive on Masada. Reading that was the first time that it brought to life for me that period of history and I was struck about how drastically it changed the way Judaism was observed.
I feel like what we are experiencing now is of biblical proportions. Imagine if someone would have interrupted your Dec. 31, 2019 New Year celebration to inform you that within three months, the world would shut down due to a COVID-19 virus and life as you know it would be drastically altered.
Places of worship? Closed, with Shabbat services being streamed live on Facebook. Schools? Closed, with teachers teaching from their home via Zoom to their students, who are in their own homes. Restaurants, stores, businesses going out of business or struggling. Millions of people losing jobs and countless others working from home. Events and concerts cancelled. Theaters going dark and Hollywood ceasing filming. Requirements to wear masks being implemented, along with suggestions to stay six feet away from other people. Shaking hands turns deadly. Lipstick is irrelevant.
All of this caused not by another nation, such as in the case of world wars, but by an invisible virus that affects different people in different ways. Not just an outbreak in one country, but worldwide. People can have the virus without having any symptoms and spread it to others who can die from it. Symptoms can vary from that of a common cold and losing the sense of taste and smell to taking away a person’s ability to breathe on their own. Some previously healthy people will have long-term effects. It’s dangerous for grandparents to hug their grandchildren and due to the dangers of traveling and being close to others, funerals will be live-streamed online.
Then while everyone is told to stay home to prevent spreading the virus, a tragic death sparks the country, which erupts in riots and protests. Men and women who were previously considered heroes during the tragedy of 9/11 are now called villains by some. After weeks of staying at home and with millions out of work, thousands have time to head downtown in multiple cities throughout the country night after night to protest the murder of George Floyd and countless others. Some protesters wear masks, others don’t. The virus spreads, which some people believe and others don’t.
It is said in the Talmud that one of the reasons the Second Temple was destroyed was because of internal politics: “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred of one Jew for another.” (Yoma 9b).
Although the context is obviously much different, this senseless hatred is very much prevalent in America today. A few minutes of scrolling through social media posts makes this clear. The comments that people post and the way they “speak” to each other is horrifying. Videos of verbal and physical attacks are regularly posted. Why are we treating each other this way?
We are told that one thing we can do to get our country moving again is to wear a mask when out in public when it’s not possible to be socially distant from others – at least six feet away. That may not prevent us from getting the virus, but it can help the most vulnerable in our community from suffering from its effects and it can prevent it from spreading.
Instead of stepping up and wearing a mask to try to contain the pandemic, many refuse to wear a mask, and even protest about being asked to wear one. (The country’s leader also initially mocks wearing a mask, though eventually does it.)
I understand why people don’t want to wear masks – they are not comfortable to wear for an extended period of time (and I know some people are medically required to not wear one due to their own medical issues). I get that they are angry because they feel the impact of COVID-19 is exaggerated and that their civil rights are being violated.
But when it’s emphasized that wearing a mask could save someone else’s life during this time, I don’t understand the venom or not attempting to adhere to it. It seems like a simple act of kindness to help mitigate the course of this nightmare our country is now in. It helps all the doctors and nurses who are risking their lives to help people heal because it could decrease the number of patients in the hospitals. It could help prevent the cashier who is ringing up your groceries from bringing home the virus to a loved one.
Nobody knows how long this pandemic will be around but for sure it will be remembered as a pivotal part in history and a turning point in many lives. At some point, when it is safe to film again, this pandemic will be featured prominently in many film and TV plots, as well as inspire many songs and books. How it will be remembered is still to be determined since we are still in the midst of it.
This past Shabbat was called Shabbat Chazon, named after the first word of the haftarah. It’s considered to be the saddest Shabbat, since it falls within the nine days leading up to Tisha B’Av. The haftorah read on this day is from the prophecy of Isaiah and one excerpt of this ancient text (Isaiah 1:17) provides a lesson that seems particularly relevant to today, in the midst of the pandemic and social justice protests:
“Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.”
We won’t know for awhile how this time will be perceived in history. But how we act today can make a difference.